By Joseph Tanfani
1:01 PM EDT, March 27, 2014
An internal review by a team of lawyers hired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie concluded that the governor’s aides came up with the idea to close off the access lanes to the George Washington Bridge on their own, without the governor or other staffers knowing about it.
“We found that Gov. Christie had no knowledge beforehand of this George Washington Bridge realignment and that he played no role whatsoever in the decision or the implementation of it,” said lawyer Randy Mastro, a former federal prosecutor who led the inquiry.
The report offered a fresh revelation on the question of when Christie learned of the September 2013 closures: David Wildstein, who engineered the realignment of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, N.J., claimed to another Christie aide that he told the governor about it while the resulting traffic foul-up was under way, the study said.
Christie’s press secretary, Michael Drewniak, said Wildstein told him in early December that he did not act alone and said that he mentioned the traffic problems to Christie at a public event while they were happening. Wildstein was with Christie at a Sept. 11 memorial event in Manhattan.
Christie said he didn’t remember hearing Wildstein's account, and wouldn’t have paid much notice to a traffic issue anyway.
After months of examination, costing taxpayers a reported $1 million, the study seems unlikely to end the controversy over the September bridge debacle, already the focus of two other investigations. The key players in the controversy — Wildstein, a New Jersey political insider who worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; Bridget Ann Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff; and Bill Stepien, Christie's former campaign director — all declined to speak with the attorneys.
The review turned up new evidence of hostility toward Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who declined to endorse Christie for reelection. It said the motive for the debacle remains somewhat obscure, since the mayor considered himself on good terms with the administration. The fact that Sokolich wasn’t willing to endose Christie was known in the administration by March of last year, the report said.
“The common speculation that this was an act of political retaliation because Mayor Sokolich failed to endorse the governor for reelection is not established by the evidence we have seen,” the report said. "It was Wildstein’s ‘idea,’ like so many other ‘crazy’ ones he’d had before that never got off the ground.”
The day before she sent her notorious email to Wildstein that read, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly confirmed that Sokolich would not endorse Christie. When one of her staffers met with Sokolich a few days later, Kelly sent a series of furious emails: “I am on fire,” she wrote. “He should not have met with Fort Lee without approval.”
The review also concluded that Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegations of political pressure applied by Christie administration officials are “demonstrably false.” Zimmer said that top officials in the administration threatened to withhold superstorm Sandy aid unless she cleared the way for a development project that had ties to David Samson, chairman of the port authority and a top Christie ally.
Mastro said Zimmer’s story was contradicted by other evidence, including her own statements.
Samson declined to be interviewed, Mastro said during a news conference.
The report said that Kelly and Stepien had a “personal relationship” during the summer of 2013, but said the relationship had cooled by August and the two had largely quit speaking.
Mastro also sought during his remarks to refute suggestions that he was motivated to do a “whitewash” for Christie’s benefit.
“There are other investigations that will make findings after we are done,” he said. “We will be judged at the end of the day on whether we got it right.”
Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times